More below the fold...
Social Reform became the leading political issue of the Roman Empire by the 2nd century BCE. Under Tiberius Gracchus (163 - 133 BCE) the poor were required to register for food relief, and this right became hereditary (under Augustus, see below). Social programs included caps on the land acreage that a single individual could own; seized land was portioned off to the poor, to bring some relief to the taxed Empire's coffers. This period also saw extensive colonization of conquered lands, also to portion land and to induce the poor so they could farm, rather than depend on state assistance.
Julius Caesar (b100 - d40 BCE) spent a large portion of the Roman Empire's revenue on Grain Relief (a social program of the Roman Empire whereby free or low-cost grain and bread were distributed to the poor at fixed rates); but he succeeded in reducing the number of dependant Roman citizens and thereby streamlined the Empire's finances to allow an expansion of the military. Note that Grain Relief existed from time immemorial, certainly since the Hellenic period, and it was considered a right of citizenship.
Augustus Caesar (27 BCE - 14 AD) continued Grain Relief even after the Roman civil wars. This social program became heavily politicized, and used to keep the peace on the home front. The rights of a citizen came to include public entertainment as well as bread.
Roman politicians campaigned on free food for the poor platforms. Conservative politicians such as Sulla (b138 - d70 BCE) tried to abolish Grain Relief, but caused widespread unrest instead. Not even Nero dared to abolish Grain Relief. Grain was regularly supplemented with olive oil, pork, salt, and other staple commodities, besides the meals offered to citizens during circus events. There were career public officials that we would now call social workers.
By the time of Tiberius Caesar (14 - 37 CE), public expenditures such as Grain Relief, public entertainment, and the beautification of Rome were serious drains on the Roman Empire's coffers, but were considered inevitable, and there was a sense of responsibility conferred by position, or noblesse oblige.
Enter the Christians. We know very little about Christianity before 150 CE. The Bible is not a history book, and the early Christian Church certainly did not develop as described in the Book of Acts. Archeology tells us that certain Christian sects had daily or weekly gatherings in the Catacombs of Rome, where they engaged in elaborate meals (the Lord's Meal). We know very little about other Christian communities, as all records have been systematically destroyed. We are left with the writings of the early Church fathers, that is whichever ones the Church saw fit to preserve in the 4th century. Archeology will give us new insights, as new discoveries are made. But we know that the archeological record does not support the myth of the New Testament, nor the persecution tradition advanced by the likes of Fox's Book of Martyrs. Simply put, we are not (yet) able to accurately reconstruct the transformation of the early Jesus tradition of the 1st century until the takeover of the Roman Empire.
However, this takeover did happen. That much is certain. What do we garner from the Church fathers' writings? By the late 2nd - early 3rd century CE, Christian writers such as Tertullian (b155? - d230 CE) were strongly emphasizing the role of the Church in Charity, and he wrote:
The contribution of the church are expended upon no banquets or drinking bouts or useless eating houses but in feeding and burying poor people on behalf of boys and girls who have no parents nor money.
The Canon of the New Testament was assembled during this period. It is important to note that the extensive descriptions of organized Apostolic and Congregational charity contained in the New Testament are mostly fiction, a deliberate exercise in mythmaking. They were to be used as a political platform for a religious takeover of the Roman Empire's state-sponsored charity, or social services. Reports of extensive organized Christian charity were coming from places such as Antioch, where notably charitably given monies were used to care for the Church of Antioch in addition to (or rather than) caring for the poor. By the Middle Ages, the Church's order of priority for donated money was 1) the Bishop; 2) the Priest; 3) the Church; 4) Charity, relief for the poor. The poor now had to depend on alms rather than the State or any organized charity.
Chrysostom (b347 - d407 CE) would brag that he cared for some 3000 widows, strangers and sick. By this time, the takeover of the Roman Empire was pretty much complete. Social work, care for the poor and the sick was entirely taken over by the Church, and donated money went first to the Church and Church officials; actual charitable work was whimsical at best, politically motivated always, and discriminatory. Grain Relief was no longer a right of citizenship, but a blessing from God to be conferred upon the deserving poor. Pagans, certainly, were not entitled. Conversion and 'spirituality' were prerequisites, as well as 'deservedness'. The poor were categorized into those suffering through no fault of their own, and the 'lazy' or the 'wicked.'
When we also consider the Church's strongly anti-intellectual leanings, as stated by that same Chrysostom:
Every trace of the old philosophy and literature of the ancient world has vanished from the face of the earth.
we get some idea of the atmosphere that the Christian Church of the 4th century brought to the formerly religiously and philosophically tolerant (for the times) Roman Empire. Few of the Pagan writings survive, but we have remnants contained in the writings of the Church polemicists, for example the writings against Celsus and Porphyry. Celsus argues that the Christian faith is inferior to Paganism because it does not lend well to allegorical interpretation, and Origen feels compelled to defend it, saying that it does (see Origen Contra Celsus online).
I'm not saying that life in the Roman Empire was all roses; I wouldn't have wanted to be a slave. But citizens had rights and social programs; learning was prized and religion a matter of personal choice. In 200 short years during the takeover, a pagan could be torn limb from limb or burned at the stake simply for owning the wrong book. And people starved. The takeover of the Roman Empire wasn't about truth and knowledge, or the teachings of a man from Galilee who left a tradition of tolerance and love; it was about power and money. The Christianity of love was taken over by power-hungry and money-mad individuals who became fantastically wealthy in the process. Learning, philosophy and the Roman Empire died.
Why am I so disturbed about Katrina? When I checked the FEMA WebPages during the worst of the disaster, I found lists of charities to which I was to send money; and with but two exceptions they were all faith-based charities. And FEMA now plans to reimburse some of these charities for the monies they spent on Katrina survivors. My questions: where did all the money go? Millions of people around the world donated hundreds of millions to these faith-based charities; did that money go towards helping survivors or furthering the interests of the religious groups they represent? Distributing Bibles to Katrina survivors might be a noble endeavor, but those who gave money gave it in good faith to help those who were naked and hungry and without shelter.
The trend observed under Bushco is to transfer the responsibility of caring for the poor and the hungry to these same faith-based charities: who monitors their work? Who ensures that those who need the help get it? Who ensures that aid is not discriminatory? Who audits the charities, and who makes rules and standards to ensure that donated money is used for the purpose intended? We are already seeing the phenomenon of fatigue, where the minority of citizens who do donate to charity are tapped, and food banks are empty. Isn't it precisely to counter these problems that all civilized societies instituted government social programs to care for those who need care, for whatever reason? The planned destruction of these social programs in favor of a faith-based charity approach to aid is a catastrophically wrong-headed endeavor. It is a return to the Dark Ages and to feudalism.
Why did I mention Niger? This same agenda is being forced on a number of developing nations. Niger is an excellent example. Niger is the 2nd poorest nation on earth. It has applied for aid, and it has received a share of some $550M (for several countries in the area) pledged by the USA - for military spending (for 'fighting terrorists' - they're building airstrips and planning for permanent US bases - yes there is OIL in the region). Almost $0 for food.
The IMF wants Niger to go to a free-market economy, because this is somehow supposed to 'fix' the chronic food shortages. Did I say 'go to'? Oh yeah, Niger had a working social program: Grain Relief. The government stockpiled grain and sold it to the populace at a reduced cost if there were food shortages. The IMF forced Niger to sell off or destroy its grain reserves in March 2005. Niger was also forced to impose a 19% tax on grain. The rationale was to stop flooding the market and thereby not artificially drive down grain prices.
As of August: 800,000 people, mostly children, are starving or dead in Niger since March, and 3 million people are undernourished or at risk. There is food in Niger, and neighboring countries do have food to sell Niger, but the poor simply don't have the money to buy it. So they're dying.
Niger President Mamadou Tandja is sharply critical of NGOs (including faith-based charities) for the worsening effect of their 'aid'. But he is strongly supportive of the USA and the IMF and he is aggressively privatizing state-owned service providers (read: he is selling national assets to American investors for much less than their fair market value, almost certainly in exchange for kickbacks).
Western (Christian) faith-based charity organizations are now urging the (mostly Muslim) Niger populace to set up community stockpiles of grain to alleviate hunger. The degree of misinformation on such stories is staggering, but the BBC has a couple of reports:
In August, a BBC op-ed piece comes out against food relief in Niger. Then, today, the BBC reports widespread starvation in Niger. It seems that international food relief is being kept to a minimum to `stabilize grain prices'. The non-faith based charity working in Niger, Doctors Without Borders, has had to treat malnourished children with specially formulated high-calorie plasma and blood transfusions. Why? Though no one will come right out and say it, the Niger government will not allow them to bring large quantities of food into the country, they may only give out medical aid. So they improvise. The poor in Niger are starving, and those who have land are being forced to sell it in order to survive the famine. What's next for these people; slavery? Feudalism? Convert to Christianity or die?
What do I want to do about all this? There is a real Jesus tradition, teaching love and tolerance. There are millions of Christians who wholeheartedly support this tradition, and who wish to live their lives accordingly. But for the sake of society, Christians must honestly appraise the charity work that they do, and the transfer of responsibility away from government and towards faith-based charities must stop. And yes, this does go against the long-term financial interests of Christian organizations, who have the opportunity to become fantastically wealthy under Bushco. But true Christianity is about sacrifice, not personal gain at the expense of the poor.
Cross-posted at Street Prophets.